Tanzanian freelance journalist, Erick Kabendera, writes about the traditions and customs in Tanzania’s Tanga region related to women and sexuality. Tanga women pass down ideas to girls on how a wife should be sexually skilled and sexually available for her husband. Thus, in Tanzania, Tanga women are believed to be “husband snatchers” and “good in bed.” Erick visited the Tanga region and narrates his experience meeting some of the women.
You couldn’t have missed a story or two – usually of the naughty stock – about the ‘notorious’ women of Tanga. They say girls from this region are so schooled at handling men that Tanga could easily qualify for a Men’s Paradise if ever there was such a thing.
Maua Abdallah, 40, for one is a proud native of the region whose only problem is that sometimes their reputation has acquired negative connotations with talk of them being perpetual man-snatchers and prostitutes. She maintains, “People are simply different,” and she continues to live by the lessons she was taught growing up.
In fact, though aware that I would be taking the inside story of Tanga girls to the rest of the world, Maua doesn’t hesitate to invite me to her home to see just how she goes about her marriage.
On this particular evening, she sits with four elderly women on a mat on the veranda of a ten-roomed block on which she and her husband rent a single room.
They are wearing only khangas; one wound around the waist, the other around the bust, the third
one covering the head. They sit with their legs crossed.
Her husband had travelled but he was expected back that evening. And she pointed out it was a good time for me to see how a Tanga woman prepares for her husband.
Their room was small but neat with the sole medium-sized bed covered with a white bedspread on which Jasmine flowers had been sprinkled. A khanga hanging neatly from the side of the bed proclaimed “Tupendane kama tende na Halwa” (literally, ‘let’s love each other like Indian sweets and Arabic Halwa’). From below the bed, incense sticks released swirls of smoke whose scent did not escape my nostrils as it struggled to beat off the humid, dusty air from outside.
A patterned mat was laid out on the seemingly clean adobe floor with several dishes containing different types of food sitting on it. The pretty, woolen-knit dish covers did nothing to tame the sweet aroma of the food that escaped from under them.
This is how she typically welcomed her husband from a trip or from work and she wanted me to witness the ‘Tanga touch’ firsthand. My luck was to get to taste some of the delicious dishes prepared for the lucky man.
As Maua put some food for me on a plate the other elderly women left but her niece, Mariam, 19, who got married just last year and her friend Amina Amadi, 30, divorced for three years now, stayed.
We talked about growing up female in Tanga.
“The journey of a Tanga woman begins when she reaches puberty,” Maua offered eagerly. It is at the initiation ceremonies performed at this stage that the women of these Coastal tribes, particularly the Digo, Segeju and the Zigua of Pangani, are schooled in basic skills to ‘handle men’.
“Although a kungwi [an experienced older woman] coordinates the initiation it is difficult for her to explain just what the point is of some of the norms taught to us,” she adds.
The lessons drilled into their minds, and into their lives, normally relate to things that any woman is ideally capable of doing and would probably want to do but somehow overlooks as too simple, too obvious, or too goofy.
Typically, about the time her husband is expected back from work Maua cooks a variety of foods and carefully lays it out just the way she did that evening. Nothing appears done hurriedly. The tablecloth is neat and pressed. And for further effect a khanga with an appropriate message sometimes replaces the usual mat ‘kawa’.
When she is done getting the food ready, she showers and puts on a clean, preferably provocative dress then sits on the veranda waiting for her husband to arrive. Once she sees him at a distance coming, she rushes towards him and helps relieve him of whatever he maybe carrying as she asks about his day. When they get into the house she helps him put off his shoes, tie or any other encumbrances and then gets the food ready for him. If he looks to be tired, she is only too happy to feed him herself and then lead him to the bed covered with Jasmine flowers so he can relax and receive a soothing massage done with powder from the Msandali wood that every woman is given upon marriage. This powder, which is sometimes mixed with coconut oil, is meant to relax as well as nourish the body. Oh, and while massaging her beloved husband Maua says she is only wont to wear a very light and transparent khanga, which she only says is very important, no details.
Husband wants to take a bath? Maua would happily carry him on her back to the bathroom though she hasn’t been able to indulge in this as often as she would want to because of the lack of privacy in their surroundings, which makes her husband a bit shy. Not to worry though – the bath water, mixed with potions of fluid from the Rose flowers, will sooth him through his shower. This mixture, she says, is also helpful in curing bad body odours.
Shower done, there is no television in their house for distraction but Maua is at hand to coo her man to sleep.
By the way, this is Maua’s second marriage – or ‘chungu cha pili’ as she gaily refers to it. She was divorced by her first husband in 1997 after they had been married for 12 years. But just in case you’re wondering, she did employ all the tricks in her marriage handbook even then. But though it is scandalous for a Tanga woman to be dumped by her husband, she doesn’t consider the failure of that marriage as her own failure necessarily. The man was naturally violent and he never appreciated what she did for him.
Moreover, by the Tanga Women’s Rulebook, even if a husband leaves behind just a small amount of money, he would expect his wife to prepare him a world-class dinner ‘by any means possible’. “I decided to ask him for the divorce because it was difficult to live with him,” Maua says.
Such is the experience that Maua boasts – from her two marriages and personal skill with men – that she qualified to become a kungwi to aid in the initiation of pubescent girls and those who are about to be married.
There are basically three levels of initiation. The first is carried out when a girl reaches puberty, the second when she is about to be married. It is only pregnant women who are taken through the third training.
There are hard and fast rules to be observed before enlisting your daughter for initiation. For
starters, the mother of a girl who is about to attend the first initiation ceremony is forbidden from directing her in anything that she is likely to be taught at boot camp. It is the job of the kungwi to impart such delicate knowledge to a girl upon payment of a certain fee by the girl’s family.
I met Mwanaharusi Jumanne, 48, who lives in Dar es Salaam but had brought her 14-years-old daughter Safina back home to Tanga for initiation. The mother wholly believes in the benefits of this training for womanhood. “I was trained when I was her age and attended the second initiation two years later before I got married,” she said.
Though Jumanne is hesitant to speculate on why the forerunners could have started these initiation rites she says she appreciates them if the point was to rein in the young women and men. Because discipline is very important for any Tanga girl with hopes of ever getting married and it is important these values are instilled in them when they are still young. “I would be embarrassed if I heard that my daughter doesn’t respect her husband,” she says.
Lads are also taken through their own special rites though Jumanne says she doesn’t know what exactly they are taught.
According to Maua, after the first initiation ceremony, a girl is not allowed to loiter around the streets whether during daytime or night time. She is also required to cover her body with khangas all the time to avoid exposing herself to men including her own father. “At that age a girl looks more beautiful and attractive and men could take advantage of her.”
Two years ago, Mariam Ponda, 62, worked as a kungwi but decided to quit because she wanted to focus on her current business of braiding hair.
Ponda who is mdigo by tribe says most Coastal cultures have an Arab influence with a lot of emphasis placed on women’s acquiescence to men. In her own words, women are expected to entertain their men and, she adds, “how do you entertain your husband if you’re not properly trained to do so?”
It is because of this that Ponda personally appreciates these rites, which she argues empower women with the knowledge of how to take care of their houses and husbands – whom they regard just like children to be pampered. “This is what hooks them to a relationship.”
There is nothing crass about the lessons they are taught in Ponda’s view. “How to sustain a man sexually, nutritionally and with regard to cleanness are very important things that every woman ought to know.”
Discipline is emphasised during boot camp and the kungwi must be informed about a girl’s past misbehaviour so that she is straightened out and exhorted onto the right path.
The initiation rites last from two weeks to one month and nobody, especially men, is allowed to see the girls.
But Haji Faki Amir is one Tanga man who is not enjoying any jasmine scented nights or that spotty piggybacking to the bathroom.
Faki, an author of several Kiswahili fiction books who has also done research on the cultural practises in Tanga, argues that the emphasis on bedroom skills during the initiation could be a factor in turning some young girls into sex workers, as they already feel empowered to attract men with the information they have at their fingertips.
To him a culture in which women are viewed as some sort of sex instruments solely for entertaining men could be the reason Tanga has been sidelined in terms of development. In fact there are many women around Tanga like Maua who are not engaged in any employment but stay home all day waiting for their working husbands to return home and humour them.
Faki has also found that the practise of witchcraft is widely prevalent in his community. “Women bewitch men they feel they want to be with. Most people from areas with initiation rites are also superstitious,” he says.
He has hope that, with increased intermarriages and interaction with different tribes, such practises will die out with time. He notes that if, for instance, a Mdigo woman marries a man from a tribe where such norms are not observed, it is unlikely he would allow his daughter to be enlisted for initiation.
Back at Maua’s ‘paradise’, as we talk she gets up and goes into the house from where she emerges with bowl full of brown grains which she starts to eat. I ask her what they are. “Kungu Manga,” she replies. They apparently are helpful in arousing a woman to the point of making her appropriately doe-eyed.
I later dropped by the house of Bibi Kijazi, 62, a once popular kungwi, where I encountered Jamillah, married just last year when she was 17 and touted as Kijazi’s best student ever.
She is wrapped in a khanga and she struts around quite… provocatively. Her large eyes look very sensual, possibly from chewing some kungu.
Kijazi says Jamillah was the fastest learner at her boot camp and such is her skill that her husband has been constantly dropping by to express his gratitude to Kijazi.
Basking in this approval, Kijazi asserts that it would not right for me to write about Tanga women without ‘the experience’. She says this with a rather mischievous look but I could sense she was not joking. I had heard of stories of men – like Mohamed of Tabora – who stepped into Tanga never to leave. We joke about this as I get to my feet. Finally, with the promise to be as objective as possible with the information she had been so generous with, Kijazi grants me leave.